Deaths on Rikers Island Raise Concerns for Mentally Ill Prisoners

George Lavender

Recent deaths at the Rikers Island complex in New York have raised concerns about the treatment of prisoners with mental health issues

Two deaths on Rikers Island have raised concerns about the treatment of prisoners with mental health issues inside New York City’s largest jail. Writing in the New York Daily News, former corrections commissioner Bernard Kerick said something was very wrong” at the jail.

With assaults on the rise and two mentally ill inmates dying after acting out and then being neglected in their cells, as officers allegedly ignored their calls for help, it’s clear the system is again spinning out of control.

Kerick was responding to a report by the Associated Press that a prisoner with mental health issues had died after being left alone in a cell for seven days. 

After a mentally ill Bradley Ballard made a lewd gesture to a female guard at the Rikers Island jail, he was locked in his cell alone for seven increasingly agitated days in which he was denied some of his medication, clogged his toilet so that it overflowed, stripped off his clothes and tied a rubber band tightly around his genitals.

During that period, guards passed Ballard’s cell in the mental observation unit dozens of times, peering through the window in the steel door but never venturing inside — until it was too late.

The 39-year-old Ballard was eventually found naked and unresponsive on the floor, covered in feces, his genitals swollen and badly infected. He was rushed to a hospital but died hours later.

He didn’t have to leave this world like that. They could have put him in a mental hospital, got him some treatment,” Ballard’s mother, Beverly Ann Griffin, said from her Houston, Texas, home. He was a caring young man.” Continue reading…

Ballard died on September 11th, just five months before another Rikers prisoner baked to death” in an overheated cell. According to the Associated Press, Jerome Murdough was arrested for trespassing in February, after sleeping in the stairwell of a public housing building. 

A week later, the mentally ill homeless man was found dead in a Rikers Island jail cell that four city officials say had overheated to at least 100 degrees, apparently because of malfunctioning equipment.

The officials told The Associated Press that the 56-year-old former Marine was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication, which may have made him more vulnerable to heat. He also apparently did not open a small vent in his cell, as other inmates did, to let in cool air.

He basically baked to death,” said one of the officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to discuss specifics of the case.

The medical examiner’s office said an autopsy was inconclusive and that more tests were needed to determine Murdough’s exact cause of death. But the officials, all with detailed knowledge of the case, say initial indications from the autopsy and investigation point to extreme dehydration or heat stroke.

Advocates for mentally ill inmates in New York say the death represents the failure of the city’s justice system on almost every level: by arresting Murdough instead of finding him help, by setting bail at a prohibitive $2,500 and by not supervising him closely in what is supposed to be a special observation unit for inmates with mental illnesses.

New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio called Murdough’s death very troubling.”

According to a recent report, by the Treatment Advocacy Center, a conservative estimate” of prisoners at Rikers with severe mental illness” put the number at 2,440. The state by state TAC survey found:

The numbers of incarcerated mentally ill have been growing, and TAC reports that their treatment in the corrections system is nothing less than abominable. Mentally ill inmates are more likely to become the victims of sexual assault and abuse. They’re also overrepresented in solitary confinement, and they are much more likely than other prisoners to commit suicide.

The recent deaths in custody of two prisoners with mental health issues are not isolated incidents. Last week, the US attorney in Manhattan announced that a federal grand jury had indicted a New York City corrections officer for violating an inmate’s civil rights. Jason Echevarria died in Riker’s Mental Health Assessment Unit for Interacted Inmates after his requests for medical help were allegedly ignored. 

On August 18, 2012, Jason Echevarria, a 25-year-old inmate at Rikers Island, swallowed a chunk of detergent powder. Guards had passed out the soap balls so that the inmates could clean their cells, which had been flooded by a sewage back-up. Echevarria soon began shouting for help. He banged on his cell door, told correction officers that he had eaten the soap ball, and demanded medical attention. A guard informed his captain about the situation and the captain told the guard that he should only call him if he needed help pulling a body out of a cell. A pharmacy technician and another guard also told the captain that Echevarria looked like he was in bad shape. The captain did nothing.

Guards found Echevarria dead the next morning. Continue reading…

Prisoners rights organizations have previously raised concerns about New York City’s jails. In 2012 the Legal Aid Society filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of several prisoners which alleged the pattern of brutality in the City’s jails is deeply entrenched.”

George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue